Change: What’s love got to do with it? - RSA

Change: What’s love got to do with it?

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  • Picture of Steve Coles FRSA
    Steve Coles FRSA
    Addictions Recovery, charity CEO, social enterprise, social impact, well-being.
  • Social enterprise
  • Fellowship
  • Social innovation

Change is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘to make or become different’. For me, the people and organisations I work with, and for the RSA, I believe change is more specifically ‘to make or become better’. That kind of change is also inevitable, hard, rare, vital, difficult, and exciting. Sometimes, all at the same time.

As the managing director of a social enterprise and well-being consultancy, I spend the majority of my time training others in social impact measurement and advising nearly 100 social entrepreneurs and social enterprises of varying sizes each year. I’ve worked for one of the world’s biggest, oldest, and most renowned charities, The Salvation Army, and for the last four years, I’ve also been a member of the Fellowship Council of the RSA. In all these contexts, to name but a few, I think about and experience change. All of these organisations want to create positive change; many experience a lot of change a lot of the time; many try, but fail to create change, and some really need to change but don’t or can’t. 

It is from this context that I offer my thoughts here, not as a perfect view set in stone, but as an offering for debate and discussion. 

In my experience, change – making things better - comes down to five things (all helpfully beginning with ‘L’).  These are: Love, Listen, Learn, Long-term, and Leadership. 

Love: Fundamentally, change is about people and relationships. More specifically, it is about love. While I didn’t think I’d have much in common with Steve Hilton, it turns out that I agree him when he advocates love powerfully in his book ‘More Human’. Hilton talks about empathy; about really understanding people. I think we could and should call this ‘love’. Over the last few years, I’ve found myself increasingly uneasy with the rhetoric and practice of some social enterprise and social investment intermediaries, often finding them to be much more about enterprise and investment than about ‘social’. To try to tip the balance of the scale back toward the social end of the spectrum, my colleagues and I thought we’d explore the question ‘Social enterprise: What’s love got to do with it?’  It turns out that the answer is ‘a lot’. We asked a number of social entrepreneurs about this and discovered that love is both a major motivator for change, as well as a major mechanism for bringing about that change. Not everyone would use the word ‘love’, but those we interviewed often talk about kindness, caring, passion, trust, warmth, inclusion, and patience. All things that put people at the heart of it all – radically, inclusively, and meaningfully – and that lead to transformation. 

Listen: In our work with hundreds of social enterprises over the last six years, rather than bang on about all the jargon of ‘stakeholder engagement’ and a heavy reliance on data, we keep coming back to ‘listening’ as the primary way of ascertaining and enhancing change. It is possible that listening might come in the form of surveys, numbers, feedback, and so on, but the most important thing is that it is actual listening. To real people. With our ears. Sitting and chatting and listening to real people in the real world. Social entrepreneurs, policy makers, public officials, and others can learn a lot from asking ‘what changed?’ and then listening to the answers. Some answers will be expected and some will be unexpected. All will be valuable. Steve Hilton says that ‘the single biggest improvement we could bring to policymaking in government is to put people at the centre of the process’ (p.22) and to do that by observing and listening to real people in real places. I agree. 

Learn: It seems that positive change comes about thanks to learning (from loving and listening). The social entrepreneurs that we work with who make the biggest impact don’t just measure and report their impact – they reflect on it, learn from it, and improve or innovate.  Making the most of positive change as an integral part of the culture, mission, measurement, celebration, rituals, and meetings of an organisation brings about more and better change. My ‘top ten best social enterprises’ all infuse the very atmosphere in which they operate with an obsession for change. In thinking about learning, I’ve been reflecting on design-based thinking. Listening, generating ideas, rapid prototyping, testing, improving… This approach is more organic, more open, more local, more nuanced than big, broad brush-stroke approaches. Listening and learning both play a part in something else important: being comfortable with ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’. This point was raised powerfully in an RSA conversation between Matthew Taylor, Sally Osberg, and Roger Martin on ‘How Social Entrepreneurs Drive Progress’, in which Roger Martin described how and why it is important to both ‘abhor the status quo, but also appreciate it’. If it’s only one or the other – abhorring it or appreciating it – then it won’t change it. We can only appreciate things – complex social norms, deep-rooted beliefs, and patterns of behaviour – when we really listen and are open to learning. 

Loving, listening, and learning take me onto my fourth observation. 

Long-term: Change is often long-term. While design-thinking, rapid prototyping, and moving quickly certainly have their benefits, creating change is not about doing more stuff to more people more rapidly. It’s about doing better stuff with people over and for the long-term. Quick isn’t always best and understanding, developing, and taking a long-term view seems to me to also be vital to change (something which, I’m sure, is not incompatible with design-thinking). I’ve observed quite a number of my friends running charities and social enterprises that tackle inter-generational, long-term, and intractable problems. They often talk of visions and strategies that span decades or even talk in terms of perpetuity and forever. When it comes to measuring their impact, they have a strong theory of change, which clearly articulates both the immediate outcomes (which are observable and measurable) and the long-term outcomes (which are based on prior research or evidence). 

Leadership: At the risk of sounding like a quote from a motivational poster of the late 1990s, I’m increasingly convinced that vision and leadership are vital to bringing about change. Change takes vision, energy, commitment, passion, and direction, which all come from leadership. It takes clarity of purpose to remain focused. In his book ‘Betterness’, Umair Haque asks the questions ‘Why are most vision statements maddeningly un-visionary?  Why is it that if in most boardrooms, you uttered words like “wisdom,” “truth,” “love,” “beauty,” or “justice” – the timeless expressions of the highest human potential – you’d probably end up in handcuffs, a straitjacket, or both?’ (pp.17-18).  I think that to make the changes that both people and planet need most, we’re going to have to talk a lot more about love, beauty, and justice. I think that we’re going to have to develop leaders (not just entrepreneurs) who will not just utter those words but use them boldly and lead in that direction. 

It isn’t products that bring about change. It isn’t tech. It isn’t even services. I suggest it is love, listening, learning, long-term, and leadership. What do you think? 

Steve Coles is the founder and Managing Director of Intentionality CIC, a social enterprise and well-being consultancy. He has an MBA from Imperial College Business School and researched the impact of social enterprise on well-being. Steve is a Fellow and Fellowship Councillor of the RSA, a Non-Executive Director of Justlife CIC, and a trustee of the Justlife Foundation. Until June 2013, Steve also worked as the Social Enterprise Development Manager for The Salvation Army in the UK and Republic of Ireland. 

Any questions, comments or ideas would be very welcome and you can contact Steve by emailing [email protected] or on Twitter at @steve_coles 


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  • Precisely. It is these 5Ls which are foundational to our work in liaising between archaeological and heritage researchers and the communities in which they work. 

    Appreciate your explaining so succinctly.

    • That's very kind, thanks Patricia and many thanks for the link to ArchaeoLink, which looks great.  I'm very taken by how you foster community involvement in 'turning archaeology into heritage'.  It's a great real-world example of what I've been trying to articulate and in a field I'd have never come across had you not mentioned it.  

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